We Israelis Have No Right to Deny Palestinians Their Freedom

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Banksy graffiti at the West Bank barrier in BethlehemCredit: Markus Ortner

Listening to foreign news about the conflict, one might think that there exists a sovereign Palestine, which has some sort of territorial dispute with the State of Israel. Every once in a while, one of these parties gets violent; at other times they talk to each other, but with little success. Well-intentioned mediators come and go, looking for a formula that will end the hostilities. The average news reader is left wondering how come they didn’t solve this problem yet.

The answer is this: The story has very little to do with the reality on the ground. There is no Palestine. Israel is the only sovereign between the river and the sea. Israel controls all borders; the currency is the New Israeli Shekel and the central bank is Israel’s. Israel controls the registration of the population, the ports and the airspace. Even the Palestinian police exist to protect Israel, not Palestinians.

Under Israeli sovereignty, Jews have all the rights. Palestinians don’t. Those of them born west of the Green Line have (almost) full rights, but they are heavily supervised and discriminated against. Some 300,000 Palestinians in East Jerusalem are “residents”: They can’t take part in general elections, they can’t purchase state land and their status can be stripped from them, either as individuals or as a collective, as Israel is currently thinking of doing to some 100,000 of them. Finally, there are the Palestinians in the occupied territories, who are under the control of the military regime, are not represented at all in the Israeli system and, for almost half a century, have been tried in military courts, under military law.

The “conflict” is actually an internal Israeli problem – a regime that administrates different sets of rights for different ethnic groups. Instead of racial segregation, the system works according to classes of citizenship, but the output is not that different. This is not a temporary situation. It’s the reality most Israelis and Palestinians have known all their lives.

Maintaining such a complicated, segregated system structure is a difficult task. Since most Palestinians are prevented from taking part in the system, the only way to control them is by force. Consecutive Palestinian revolts resulted in the West Bank and Gaza looking like open-air prisons, with tall walls and watchtowers. Israel has become a world leader in surveillance, targeted assassinations and crowd-control technologies.

Since the late 1970s, almost all of Israel’s wars were waged against the Palestinians. Israel fought these wars with one goal in mind: to preserve the status quo inside its borders. Even the sole exception – the 2006 war with Hezbollah – was very much a result of the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, which was a war against the Palestine Liberation Organization.

Yet Israel’s real success – a result of the overwhelming imbalance of power – is its ability to maintain the “diplomatic” narrative of two sovereign regimes trying to resolve some border dispute.

The diplomatic narrative creates its own set of demands and expectations for all parties involved. For example, when Israel does respect a certain Palestinian right – freedom of travel; due process; representation in some zoning committee – it is considered a “gesture” and proof of goodwill on behalf of the government, instead of being seen as one of those arbitrary acts of mercy that authoritarian regimes are notorious for using as bargaining chips.

Nothing to offer Israel

On a deeper level, the ongoing conversation about Israeli “concessions” toward the Palestinians deprives the term “rights” of its original meaning – something a person is born with. Instead, we end up in a dynamic in which Palestinian rights are becoming a political currency that is used to extract favors from the world and legitimize Israeli policy goals – the settlements being the most obvious example.

It’s because of the diplomatic narrative that the decades-long Israeli political debate – whether or not to end the occupation – is considered a sign of a “vibrant democracy” – while every Palestinian effort to obtain some of their rights (including by going to the international institutions that were built for this very purpose ) is labeled “damaging,” “unhelpful” or simply “terror.”

The diplomatic process is failing, because this is not a diplomatic problem. Peace talks are meaningless because the Palestinians, like every population denied its rights, have nothing to offer Israel. Not land, nor resources. They don’t even have an army that Israel needs to worry about, like Egypt did.

That’s why support for the peace process is so low: Israeli Jews understand that any major change – either in the form of a two-state solution or the one-state solution, or any other arrangement – will actually make things worse for them. They will need to give up assets, and they will get nothing in return. So they elect the leader who promises to do everything in his power to maintain things as they are, and after he blows up the peace process – as promised – he gets reelected with an even bigger majority.

Unfortunately, the only thing that made Israelis rethink the occupation in the past was Palestinian violence. The first intifada led to Oslo; the second to the Gaza disengagement. Polls found that at the height of terror attacks, support for the two-state solution was at an all-time high. It began declining as the violence subsided.

It’s a horrible dynamic, for both Israeli Jews and Palestinians. If we would like to avoid more violence, we should end the “conflict resolution” and diplomacy narrative, and return to the reality on the ground. The simple truth is that we Israelis don’t have the right to deny Palestinians their freedom, even if we decided to do so “democratically.”

It’s time for the international community to place a demand – backed with meaningful action – to respect the Palestinians’ rights. This won’t necessarily mean a single-state solution, because Israel will still be able to withdraw from the occupied territories, with or without an agreement. But it will mean that the status quo is no longer an option. That’s the only available alternative to violence, and the first, necessary step on the long road to peace.

The writer is a journalist and was the first editor of +972 Magazine.

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